Two lawsuits alleging that the City of Denver harasses anti-abortion protesters seem to be in their death throes. But that didn't stop one of Mayor Wellington Webb's top aides from blaming the litigation for the mayor's refusal to support a program designed to prevent the spread of AIDS.
During an August meeting of the Governor's AIDS Council, Donna Good, the mayor's liaison for health and education, noted that the slightest appearance that the mayor supported a needle-exchange program for drug abusers would "destroy" the city's defense against the abortion-clinic lawsuits.
The lawsuits stem from skirmishing at the Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood clinic on Vine Street. Since 1988, a regular group of protesters has handed out leaflets and carried signs at the clinic. Loud and confrontational, the protesters occasionally step over a boundary line, scuffles ensue and the police are called--sometimes resulting in the arrest of a protester.
Last October, activist David Lane and several other protesters got into a shoving match with clinic staffers and a security officer. Lane was arrested. That led to a lawsuit against the City of Denver and its police department, in which Lane alleges that his civil rights were violated.
Lane filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court last November. The same day, he and several other regular protesters filed a second, more general lawsuit against the city, the police and Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood. That lawsuit states that the city, through its police department and prosecutors, vigorously harasses and prosecutes complaints against protesters but ignores complaints from the protesters themselves. The lawsuit sought to stop the city from "enforcing its policy...of unequal protection" and asked for unspecified compensatory damages.
For a time, the lawsuit appeared to have some teeth. Lawyers from the American Family Association Law Center in Tupelo, Mississippi, agreed to represent Lane and the other protesters. "They contacted us," confirms law center attorney Bruce Green.
The city was concerned enough that it gave the case to an outside counsel, lawyer Robert Liechty of the firm Halaby, Cross, Liechty, Schluter & Buck. But in March Lane shot the lawsuit in the proverbial foot when he was accused of breaking into the clinic and the offices of a private physician and causing extensive damage. He was arrested and charged with burglary and criminal mischief.
According to the Rocky Mountain News, Lane admitted that he had committed the burglaries. What's more, he was quoted as saying he would consider shooting an abortion doctor if called upon to do so "by the Lord."
Lane later pleaded not guilty to the charges and is currently awaiting trial. But the Tupelo lawyers dropped the protesters as clients, saying Lane had violated an agreement to conduct himself in a lawful manner and to clear any contact with the press.
Liechty says Lane's actions probably have taken care of his lawsuit. "For one thing, it's pretty hard to prosecute a case from jail," he says. "I expect that case to be dismissed soon."
The second case may be more problematic, Liechty concedes. But Planned Parenthood has filed to dismiss the suit. "To tell you the truth, I haven't done much work on this one," Liechty says, "at least not until we see how that goes. We, of course, deny the allegations."
But the Lane lawsuits have had an undeniable effect on the city.
Needle-exchange programs, which are designed to prevent the spread of AIDS, are illegal in Colorado. At an August meeting of the Governor's AIDS Council, Donna Good announced that she would not support a resolution calling for such programs. The reason, she said, was that by doing so, she might cause the city to lose the Lane lawsuits, which she described as having been brought by "a national right-wing organization out of Virginia Beach, Virginia."
The AIDS council's resolution called for a change in the paraphernalia law to legalize needle-exchange programs; it also urged local governments to instruct their law enforcement agencies to look the other way "to ensure the availability and uninterrupted operation of needle-exchange programs." Good told the group that any perception that Webb supported selective enforcement of laws--such as the needle-program resolution--would "destroy immediately" the city's case. She chided the council for a lack of "complete discussions" with Webb before assuming he would support the resolution.
Good also warned that if the city were to lose the lawsuit, violence could result. "We are in a lawsuit...which we care desperately about," she said. "We will protect people walking into those clinics. We will not allow providers to be harassed. We will not allow Denver to become Florida, or Boston, or someplace where people are hurt."
The mayor, she said, could not support the needle program as long as it was illegal. The council resolution, she added, made it appear as if Denver would take the lead in establishing a needle program.
Other members of the council denied that the resolution specifically pushed Denver to the forefront and pointed out that Good had missed the meetings when the resolution was discussed and passed.
Good defended her absences by saying she had been working on Webb's re-election campaign. Today, back on the job full-time, she says that she was only using the Lane lawsuits as an example of the ramifications Webb faced if any group could allege that the city applied its laws unequally. "It's the mayor's job to enforce the laws no matter how he feels about them personally," she says. "Amendment 2 is a good example. He doesn't like the law, but he can't just ignore it."
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Julian Rush, executive director of the Colorado AIDS Project, says he was aware before the August meeting that the mayor had reservations about the needle program. But tying it to the abortion-clinic lawsuits came as a surprise. And, he says, Good made it sound like losing the lawsuits because of the needle program was a real possibility.
Law center attorney Green laughs when asked if his organization is a national right-wing organization from Virginia Beach. "No," he says, "we're a right-wing organization from Mississippi, and we haven't had anything to do with that case since last spring."
As for the resolution destroying the city's defense in the abortion-clinic suits, Liechty says he isn't worried about it. He says he has instructed the city, "as I always do," to conduct business as usual.
"We deal with the facts, not the politics," Liechty says.